President Obama may have prevailed in his efforts to thwart a Congressional resolution of disapproval against the Iran nuclear agreement, but if a Congressional vote of disapproval would occur on his Syria policy, well, let's just say there would be no high fives down Pennsylvania Avenue.
From the day the Syrian struggle against Assad commenced in March 2011 the White House has never found its bearing on Syria -- lurching inexplicably between indifference and ineptness. Red lines to blurred lines. Should Assad go, or should he stay? Cooperate with Assad's Iran and Russian patrons or not? Is ISIS the target or is it Assad? Meanwhile, the crisis, as predicted for 4 years on these pages,, would only get worse by the day.
What would you think if you were told that U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin blurted out before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. taxpayer has spent $500 million to train an army of Syrian fighters and only 5, yes FIVE are actually in the fight against Assad. The original training goal was to stand up 5,000 fighters. You do the math. $500m divided by 5 = $100 million per fighter. That, my fellow taxpayers, deserves the vaunted Golden Fleece Award (served up by former Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire for the most outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars).
This gem came out just after Gen. Austin assured all who would listen that the U.S. was making steady progress in its fight against ISIS and Assad. In what amounted to a Trump-like defense of the indefensible, Gen. Austin's testimony sounded less like a coherent policy and more like an Arabian nights fable. Austin declared: "We continue to make progress across the battle space in Iraq and Syria." Who other than the Kool Aid slurpers in the White House believe that? Under relentless cross-examination by both Republicans and Democrats Austin had nothing to offer up but more of the same ol same ol shopworn excuses that there was no reason to alter the current policy since it was working just dandy.
What is the cause of this financial and policy calamity?
The National Security Council was assured by the Pentagon that it could muster 5000 trainees to fight ISIS even though NSC Adviser Rice had been repeatedly forewarned that Syrians willing to work with the U.S. have getting rid of Assad, and not ISIS, as Job #1. CENTCOM must have Oliver North on its payroll.
Think that's absurd?
What if I also told you that the Obama Administration has spent as of Aug. 15, 2015, $3.7 billion at the average daily cost is $9.9 million for 373 days of operations on the air war against ISIS, but 75% of the strike sorties return to base without dropping a single bomb. Why are only 25% making it to a target? Because Obama refuses to permit the Pentagon -- despite pleas by his top brass -- to dispatch forward target spotters who are vital to accurate targeting -- to help guide coalition aircraft to legitimate ISIS targets. Why should the White House alter its stubborn posture. After all, it has its CENTCOM Commander assuring it that all is well in America's battle against ISIS.
Perhaps some alms are due this White House for its Syrian muddle. Obama's national security staff's default position was to keep the U.S. out of Syria no matter the cost to U.S. interests abroad, But as it became apparent to all that this policy was bankrupt, the White House has set up a false choice between battle boots on the ground and the optical illusion that its Goldilocks approach is working.
Someone, however, did not receive the memo.
It has now come to light that the White House has been the beneficiary of conveniently manipulated intel from the field which has proven to be a god's send in its struggle to stand down its Syria policy critics. It's bad enough the policy has been wrong from the beginning, but now faulty and misleading intel to substantiate bad policy? A double whammy! The New York Times reported on September 15 -- a day before Gen. Austin's testimony -- that senior CENTCOM military officials manipulated the conclusions of intel agents' field assessment sugar-coating their pessimistic analyses about the fight against ISIS and Assad. These CENTCOM military officials report directly to Gen. Austin. No wonder the good general is whistling past the Syrian grave yard.
Of course, this begs the question: Is Gen. Austin the victim of an internal CENTCOM intel cabal, or are its perpetrators engaged in a clumsy attempt to tell their Pentagon and White House superiors what they want to hear? Too early to tell, since the Pentagon's Inspector General has launched a full blown investigation into the alleged intel manipulation. Congress is demanding answers.
Whatever the motive should we not give the White House a pass if it were formulating policy based on faulty intelligence?
What can be believed at this point? Whether manipulated intel was relied upon by the White House or not the fact remains that between its faltering Syria policy and an ineffective military campaign against ISIS the greatest humanitarian refugee crisis to befall the world in over half a century is finally receiving the attention it has long deserved and Obama and Kerry are still struggling to figure out what to do.
Two hundred thousand Syrians have perished. Four million Syrians are refugees. Half of Syria's civilian population of 28 million is uprooted from the barbarity, the famine, and the use of chemical weapons. All the while ISIS still on the march in Syria with Al Qaeda not far behind.
There is only one person to blame for this humanitarian calamity: Bashar al Assad. His savagery is the principal cause behind the suffering, but there is nothing on the horizon to suggest he is going to get the ending he deserves at the end of a rope.
The twin U.S. struggles against Syria's Assad and ISIS are in desperate need of an overhaul and some adult supervision. That would be tempting if anyone knew what exactly is the Obama Administration attempting to accomplish in Syria?
Damned if anyone knows.
It seems from reading the tea leaves that somewhere along the line the White House decided that Assad did not have to go, after all (despite Obama famously declaring he had to go) and that the #1 target for the U.S. is ISIS. Well, we know how that fight is going. Just ask Gen. Austin.
As much as ISIS is a clear and present danger to us, until Assad goes ISIS will not. As long as he is in power young Syrians seeking revenge against the regime's infliction of suffering against their loved ones will continue to flock to ISIS recruiting centers. Assad is a war criminal. The sheer magnitude of destruction to Syria's cities is catastrophic from Russian-built helicopters dropping incendiary barrel bombs on defenseless Syrians. Russia is the main provider of the planes raining devastation on Syria's civilians.
Putin is now doubling down in Syria...pouring more and more arms into Assad's beleaguered hands under the thinly veiled disguise of fighting ISIS terrorism. Although Assad's grip on power is slipping (his forces barely control a quarter of Syria) this infusion of weapons is designed to keep him around. Camouflaging the Kremlin's objectives is a fog of fallacious diplomacy intended to create the appearance that Putin has suddenly decided to become a Syrian statesman in the global fight against ISIS. Wrong! As far as Russia is concerned Assad must be propped up at any cost.
Russia's dramatic escalation leaves Obama with even a greater quandary; namely, is a negotiated settlement under Russia's tutelage preferable that would leave Assad in power, or will the U.S. stand with Turkey and Saudi Arabia against Assad and keep the military pressure on him until he and his Iranian and Russian masters are forced to negotiate his departure. Putin is going to unveil his Syria "peace plan" (a.k.a. a thinly veiled power play to keep his puppet Assad around) at the United Nations General Assembly next week -- and Obama is planning to meet Putin then to hear first hand how Russia is going to take control of Syria's fate. Putin's power play leaves Obama between a rock and a hard place. With little leverage left to influence Moscow, Obama may very well agree to accept Moscow's terms for a negotiated Syrian settlement: unite with Moscow, Tehran, and Assad's regime to combat ISIS as a precondition to forging some sort of provisional moderate Syrian transitional government. That leaves Assad in power indefinitely and only sows more support for ISIS inside Syria.
President Obama and his secretary of state may calculate they now have no alternative but to play along with Putin's gambit. There is little the U.S. can now do to remove Assad from power since boots on the ground against Assad is out of the question. Without a durable, moderate anti ISIS Syrian transitional government to take Assad's place, al-Nusra Front and ISIS would carve up what remains of Syria into two terrorist states.
What can Obama do under these circumstances?
First, where is the diplomacy with Europe to present a united front against Putin's Syria power play? The European's are drowning in Syrian refugees and yet there is little evidence of American diplomatic leadership to forge a united front against Putin and Assad. A beleaguered European Union surely now has more incentive to coalesce around a trans-Atlantic Syrian policy. Kerry is once again winging it without a flight plan with his Russian counterpart without forging a trans-Atlantic Syria consensus. Bad diplomacy; bad idea.
Second, a timetable for Assad to step down must not be abandoned as a goal of American diplomacy. That timetable must be backed up by firm U.S. resolve to keep the diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran to forge a Syrian policy that acknowledges their interest in maintaining a post-Assad regime to their liking but which ALSO incorporates a role for moderate Syrian Sunnis.
Third, the U.S. has so far failed to bring a war crimes indictment against Assad before the International Court in The Hague. De-legitimizing Assad globally is an essential tool for the U.S. which, for inexplicable reasons, the White House has not pursued. The threat of an indictment alone is leverage to be used against a recalcitrant Assad and an obstinate Putin.
Fourth, for the remaining months of the Obama presidency more must be done to support displaced Syrians. If Russia wants U.S. cooperation in Syria then the Kremlin must stop using so-called humanitarian aid ostensibly being airlifted for displaced Syrians as camouflage for more military assistance. That hoax only adds further fuel to the fire. The Kremlin must be pressured into more support and more transparency to aid Syrian refugees and the White House should compel Putin to cough up a lot more Rubles to the United Nations Syrian refugee relief agencies. All in all, not a great set of Syria policy options remain for Obama. But he has no one to blame but himself, his national security staff, and now CENTCOM brass who may have felt compelled to doctor up the intelligence reports to quench a White House thirst for any good news out of Syria no matter how "trumped-up" it might be..